Fukushima cancer death toll

Update: Dr Ian Fairlie’s latest estimate is about 5,000 deaths, based on UNSCEAR’s March 2014 collective dose estimates.


Jim Green

Longer version of article published in WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #758, March 15, 2013

An article in Nuclear Monitor #757 pointed to some preliminary estimates of the long-term cancer death toll from the Fukushima disaster, based on information about radiation releases and exposures (Green, 2013). Specifically, the article pointed to:

  • a “very preliminary order-of-magnitude guesstimate” of “around 1000” fatal cancers (von Hippel, 2011); and
  • a Stanford University study that estimates “an additional 130 (15–1100) cancer-related mortalities and 180 (24–1800) cancer-related morbidities” (Ten Hoeve and Jacobson, 2012).

Responding to the Ten Hoeve and Jacobson study, Beyea et al. (2013) arrive at a higher estimate. They state:

Radiocesium isotopes have been known to dominate projections for extra cancers expected years after a release of radioactivity from a severely damaged reactor. Presumably, the same will be true for the cancer consequences from the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 2011, but long-term doses from radiocesium in the environment were not considered in an estimate by Ten Hoeve and Jacobson (TH&J). (The purpose of their article was to evaluate the contention that the accident would have no health effects.) As a result, the projection by TH&J of 125 future cancer-related mortalities worldwide (range 15 to 1100) appears to be an underestimate. Some other factors in their calculation tended to overestimate consequences. On balance, the net result of adjusting the TH&J numbers to account for long-term dose from radiocesium is uncertain, but the mid-range estimate for the number of future mortalities is probably closer to 1000 than to 125.

Although these types of consequence calculations are uncertain, important lessons still can be drawn from them. Specifically:

  • Long-term doses from environmental contamination are important for planning as well as for consequence estimation; and
  • Monitoring of food for contamination levels that will trigger interdiction has to be continued in the long term.

Beyea et al. also discuss the view that estimates of cancer deaths based on collective radiation dose estimates should be avoided. They state:

TH&J should be commended for entering the controversial arena of radioactivity release consequence calculations. Such analyses receive criticism from those who are concerned that presenting total numbers of projected delayed cancers can amplify public perceptions of the risks from contamination and increase psychological stress of the exposed. Not discussing projected consequences undermines trust, however, and can lead to greater amplification of risk perceptions and stress. In any case, understanding the full consequence picture is important in energy planning and for making tradeoffs pre- and post-accident.

In a web-post, radiation biologist and independent consultant Dr Ian Fairlie (2013) provides a useful summary of the assumptions informing various studies into the health impacts of Fukushima including those cited above. Fairlie estimates around 3,000 cancer deaths. He states: “Considerable uncertainties surround my estimates. They should only be used as rough guides. Given the uncertainties involved for fatal cancers, only a single significant figure should be used, i.e. 3,000. This figure lies within the uncertainty range for Beyea et al’s main calculation.” He states that estimated collective doses and fatal cancers from Fukushima are about an order of magnitude lower than those from Chernobyl.

Thus the estimates − all of them subject to uncertainty and revision − range from 130 to 3,000 cancer deaths. The figures would be much higher if not for the fact that wind blew around 80% of the radioactivity from the Fukushima disaster over the Pacific Ocean.

A media release accompanying a World Health Organization (2013) report released in late February states:

In terms of specific cancers, for people in the most contaminated location, the estimated increased risks over what would normally be expected are:

  • all solid cancers − around 4% in females exposed as infants;
  • breast cancer − around 6% in females exposed as infants;
  • leukaemia − around 7% in males exposed as infants;
  • thyroid cancer − up to 70% in females exposed as infants (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75% and the additional lifetime risk assessed for females exposed as infants in the most affected location is 0.50%).

For people in the second most contaminated location of Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated risks are approximately one-half of those in the location with the highest doses.

The report also references a section to the special case of the emergency workers inside the Fukushima NPP. Around two-thirds of emergency workers are estimated to have cancer risks in line with the general population, while one-third is estimated to have an increased risk.

However the WHO report provides no information on the number of people in each of the exposed categories; it provides no information on collective radiation doses; and thus it is of limited value in relation to understanding the overall health impacts of the disaster.

The WHO report excludes radiation doses received by workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant. It also does not consider radiation doses within 20 kms of the Fukushima site, ostensibly because most people in the area were rapidly evacuated and because “such assessment would have required more precise data than were available to the panel.” A report by Oda Becker (2012) on behalf of Greenpeace Germany found that people within the 20 km zone are likely to have received high radiation doses before evacuation − but Becker does not attempt to estimate the number of people who may have been affected.

Commenting on the WHO report, Ian Fairlie (2013b) states:

Despite the report containing some useful information (and some good members on its expert team) it fails in what should have been its most important task – i.e. to calculate collective doses to the people of Fukushima, to the people of Japan and to the people of the Northern hemisphere from the Fukushima accident. Indeed the phrase ‘collective dose’ does not appear in the report. … Not only does the report not contain population doses, it appears to have been designed to prevent independent readers and scientists from doing their own calculations. For example, it tries to blind people with science by giving lots of estimates on organ doses (tables 4 and 5) but none on whole body doses, and lots of worker data (tables 6,7,8,9) but relatively little on public doses.

Other health impacts

An article in The Lancet summarises some of the non-cancer health impacts (McCurry, 2013):

Health-care professionals say they are concerned about the physical and psychological state of the tens of thousands of Fukushima evacuees, who are no closer to rebuilding their lives, 2 years after they were forced to flee.

Amid media reports of alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and suicides among people living in tiny temporary housing units scattered across the prefecture, the mental health impact of the disaster is a more immediate concern than radiation. As is the onset of disorders associated with stress and inactivity among displaced residents, particularly the elderly, such as hypertension and heart disease.

Jun Shigemura, an expert on disaster psychology at the National Defence Medical College in Saitama, near Tokyo, said a combination of poor public communication by the authorities and Tepco over radiation levels and the danger they present to health, coupled with widespread uncertainty over the future, had created a “mental health crisis” among Fukushima residents.

Shigemura, who counsels Tepco workers at Fukushima Daiichi, said: “The evacuees have lost almost everything—their houses, communities, and jobs, and they don’t know if they will ever be able to return.” Some have experienced discrimination since moving to towns outside the 20 km zone, he added. “Their identity as Fukushima residents has weakened, and that has a bad effect on their wellbeing. Some have stopped saying where they’re from.”

Additionally, the post-disaster exodus of young people has weakened the region’s health infrastructure: Fukushima now has a serious shortage of nurses, occupational therapists, and other health-care professionals. “To provide counselling and health programmes you need people and resources”, Shigemura said. “But Fukushima has a shortage of both. There is a huge challenge ahead.”

Source and contact: Jim Green is editor of the Nuclear Monitor and national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. monitor@wiseinternational.org


Becker, Oda, November 2012, ‘Potential internal radiation dose from inhalation in the vicinity of the Fukushima NPP on 14th and 15th March 2011’, on behalf of Greenpeace Germany, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/briefings/nuclear/2013/2012_OdaBecker.pdf

Beyea, Jan, Edwin Lyman, and Frank N. von Hippel, 2013, Accounting for long-term doses in ‘Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident’, Energy and Environmental Science, January, vol.6, pp. 1042-1045, http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2013/ee/c2ee24183h

Fairlie, Ian, 3 March 2013, ‘Assessing long-term Health Effects from Fukushima’s Radioactive Fallout’, www.ianfairlie.org/news/assessing-long-term-health-effects-from-fukushimas-radioactive-fallout/

Fairlie, Ian, 2013b (28 February), ‘WHO Health risk assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami’, www.ianfairlie.org/news/who-health-risk-assessment-from-the-nuclear-accident-after-the-2011-great-east-japan-earthquake-and-tsunami/

Green, Jim, 2013, ‘Fukushima Propaganda’, WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #757, February 28.

McCurry, Justin, 9 March 2013, ‘Fukushima residents still struggling 2 years after disaster’, The Lancet, Vol. 381, Issue 9869, pp.791−792, http://www.lancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2813%2960611-X/fulltext

Ten Hoeve, John E., and Mark Z. Jacobson, 2012, ‘Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident’, Energy and Environmental Science, June, vol.5, pp.8743-8757, www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/TenHoeveEES12.pdf

von Hippel, Frank, 2011, ‘The radiological and psychological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October, vol.67 no.5, http://bos.sagepub.com/content/67/5/27.abstract

World Health Organization, February 2013, ‘Health risk assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami based on a preliminary dose estimation’, www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/pub_meet/fukushima_report/en/index.html